This article was last modified on December 27, 2014.


Minnie and the Spizzirri Family

Minnie was born in Philadelphia circa 1892. Her mother operated a ladies’ tailoring business catering to high-class clientele called the Frank Dress Shop. Her father held odd jobs delivering milk and unpacking dishes at Wanamaker’s department store. They had immigrated from Denmark. The father began an affair, the marriage fell apart, and the children were forced to work by age 14 to support the family.

Minnie herself had a romance with a Mr. Davis, resulting in her getting pregnant. During the pregnancy, she went to live with her older sister Olga because her parents did not want her around. The baby, named Francis, was born without a father. Davis had fled, marrying the daughter of a Virginia plantation owner. He, in turn, was the son of Harry Davis, a dry goods business owner and the grandson of a slave-owning plantation owner.

Minnie and Francis moved from Philadelphia to Chicago in 1916. Francis was only one year old. Minnie soon became involved with Tony Spizzirri, who claimed Minnie as his “sister” on his 1917 draft card. Who was Tony Spizzirri?

The Spizzirri Family

Tony’s father Luigi Spizzirri was a labor padrone who knew the DeStefano family, associates of Big Jim Colosimo. He was born in Cosenza, Calabia in 1847 to Raffaele Spizzirri and wife Cicilia Simone. At some point, Luigi married Christina Paonessa. He lived at 151 Customs House Place in 1886, across the street from Chicago’s brothels. One neighbor, at 144, was Mary Hastings, whose brothel held “Circus Nights” with some bizarre sex acts being performed. In May 1892, Luigi took out a one-year lease on properties in the 200 block of Customs House Place (north of Taylor), and then subleased them to madams Tilly Madison, Florence Davis and Annie Fishbeck. Madison was later arrested for stealing from johns, and Fishbeck already had a history of carrying two revolvers and a straight razor on her.

Around 1893-1894, Luigi was a banker and money changer at 561-565 State Street, assisting Italians in converting their money in order to send it home. On August 30, 1893, a crowd of 1000 Italians gathered outside Luigi’s store at 559-561 State Street, near the 12th Street Viaduct, which was also a grocery, bank and saloon. The mob wanted Italian flags that Luigi had and the police had to disperse the group three times, each time the group getting bigger. The Italians were out of work and hopes to march in a grand demonstration. The third time, Lieutenant Shepherd unleashed his men and the mob was assailed with clubs until they dispersed.

Luigi declared bankruptcy in 1894, claiming $25,000 in assets. He declared bankruptcy again in 1900, this time claiming nothing. However, a 60-year old harp salesman objected, saying Luigi had swindled him out of his life savings, and hid his assets by putting his grocery business in his wife’s name and keeping a bank account under his brother-in-law’s name.

He used the Conrad Seipp Brewing Company as his supplier. Dominating the Chicago beer market by the late 1870s, Seipp was among the largest breweries in the United States, producing over 100,000 barrels a year; due to Prohibition, it closed up in 1933. On a hot day in August 1893, a mob swarmed the store, presumably to get at the 100 guns stored by Spizzirri for the Italian Sharpshooters Society. Luigi was also the president of the Bersaglieri di Savoia and the treasurer of the Societa Cristoforo Colombo.

Allegedly, Minnie and Francis attended Big Jim Colosimo’s funeral in 1920.

Tony, Minnie and Francis lived at 4016-4018 South Michigan Avenue from 1921-1923, one of the few tenements to have a telephone. The building was in Bronzeville on the south side, the black neighborhood. Also in the building was cousin Charles Spizzirri, an employee of the Illinois Perfume Company (3713 Wentworth), which may have been supplying industrial alcohol to bootleggers. Yet another cousin, Daniel Spizzirri, lived there, and had previously worked as a tailor in Philadelphia in 1910. Possibly Daniel knew Minnie’s family back east. One of Daniel’s naturalization witnesses was Francis C. Allene, who lived in the same building. His other witness was Joseph Barnetti.

Tony’s brother Ralph “Raymond” Spizzirri helped at the family grocery and ran a pool hall at 12th and Wabash in 1923.

Tony’s brother Edward was indicted with Thomas Leahy and Gerard Nisivaco in 1923 for the armed robbery of Wartburg Publishing House, a business known for publishing Lutheran hymnals. At gunpoint, they forced a clerk to give them several hundred dollars. The case was continued multiple times, with Leahy and Nisivaco eventually pleading guilty to grand larceny and getting one year probation. Edward pleaded not guilty, and the judge agreed. He was free. Leahy went on to rob again, serving time in Joliet. Nisivaco got mixed up in heroin dealing, and upon arrest in 1952 he bragged to the police he was a Capone ally and had once lived at the Metropole Hotel. Nisivaco died in 1961.

Raymond Spizzirri died May 14, 1926 at age 41.

In March 1930, Deputy US Marshal Joseph Spizzirri, another brother of Tony’s, padlocked twenty-six saloons, drug stores and delicatessens in one day, including the Club Algiers, which had been bombed only a week earlier. He targeted the Cotton Club twice, the second time seizing record books that would convict Ralph Capone of tax evasion. Around 1932, he accompanied Al Capone on the train to Alcatraz. Prior to his work as a marshal, Joseph had been a teamster and ran for alderman in 1925, losing to “Bathhouse” John Coughlin. After Prohibition, Joseph worked for a handbook on West Washington; a rival tried to kidnap him in November 1936, but only managed to shoot him in the leg. Two years later, while living in Kansas City, Joseph was shot to death by his wife.

Tony’s brother John, a First Ward poll clerk, was arrested for election tampering in the 1936 primary. Along with another clerk and two judges, he was sentenced to a year but only served 90 days.

The Further Adventures of Minnie

Minnie actually missed most of this, as Tony left her around 1923. By 1925, she was with a bootlegger named Freddy who made rum runs to Superior, Wisconsin in his brand new Willis Knight automobile. Not long after, Minnie put Francis on a train back east, away from her questionable life. He was raised by his grandparents until his grandmother died in 1936; his grandfather committed suicide shortly after. Francis developed anxiety early in life, turning to alcohol to ease the stress.

Minnie married John Theodore “Johnny” Vill after meeting him in 1929. Johnny had been born December 27, 1892 in Greece and immigrated around 1911. This was most likely not his birth name. In 1930, they lived and worked around Hancock, upper Michigan as a cashier and cook. Also living with them was roomer Louis Maloney, another Greek immigrant.

Minnie and Johnny Vill purchased the Hollywood Hotel in Spread Eagle, Florence County, near Ironwood, Michigan in 1936 from the registrar of deeds. That man, in turn, had a habit of buying property from the county that was seized for tax delinquency.

Minnie died in October 1948 at age 56. Her death certificate says she died from heart failure due to alcoholism.

John Vill passed on October 19, 1970 in Florence County.

Sources

Davis, Genevieve. Secret Life, Secret Death. October 7th Studio, 2013.

“ITALIANS FIGHTING FOR FLAGS” Chicago Tribune. August 31, 1893

Also try another article under Organized Crime
or another one of the writings of Gavin.

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